Saturday, 27 March 2010

Review: Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer (1997)

When you're struggling down a cliff of ice with the wind blowing at 40 knots and with a wind-chill factor sitting at tens of degrees below zero, life can seem confusing. Your oxygen-starved brain makes you see things that are not really there. The rules are different.

Unfortunately for Krakauer, a journalist familiar with the virtue of brevity and speed, there are simply too many people in this book for the reader to confidently keep track of. The rules are different for us, too, but Krakauser simply forges ahead with no regard for our level of understanding.

At one moment, the person's family name is used, and the next moment the author uses the same person's given name. A person he is intimately familiar with - say, the leader of another climbing party - is suddenly present in the narrative with no reminder for the reader as to who he is, or how he came to be there.

The book's editors provide a list of people at the beginning, but it's just not enough to provide the depth we need to stay on top of the myriad actors in this compelling drama. In the thick of the story we need more support, and Krakauer does not give it. By the end, when he's back home in Seattle, and trying to make sense of the mountaineering disaster that was the 1996 Everest climbing season, we kinda throw up our hands and exclaim wearily, 'Uncle'.

We're just not as well-informed as the author, but this is not a fatal weakness.

In other respects the book is fascinating. The process of getting a group of paying customers to the summit of the earth is explained in detail. Often enough, we're there with the team as they negotiate an ice cliff or cope with a persistent physical ailment.

Despite the hardships, the team members forge on, and this single-minded striving turns out to be the death of a dozen of them. Having settled in to wait for the final push, at Camp Four, the climbers are ignorant of the storm that is building, and that will unleash itself just as the majority of them reach the top.

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